Black vulture, Turkey vulture

P1080446This pair of black vultures were hanging around on the trees by Buffalo Bayou in Houston while we were there, taking a walk one sunny morning. It’s not a particularly good shot with out of focus leaves blurring it, but it offers a clear enough view of the scaly bald head of this bird.

I find vultures fascinating. They’re fairly ugly and they have grim associations with carnivorous tastes for dead animal matter. I didn’t at first like their scaly heads until I learned that they’re bald and without feathers so that the bird can insert its head into the carcass and feed without getting head fearthers messed up. Quite a neat trick of nature really, and rather practical in a gruesome kind of way.

There are always plenty of black vultures around in Huston, and they can be seen wheeling overhead in gangs or, as we noticed on this visit, hanging out on the banks of the bayou. We once counted 21 of them on a dual carriageway road tussling and vying for a morsel of the dead squirrel which several of them were having a tug of war over. Those not joining in were watching from nearby rooftops. It was reminiscent of a scene from Hitchcock’s film The Birds.

Turkey vultures are similar but significantly different. They also have bald scaly heads, but theirs are red, not black. They are larger, their wings have white patches underneath (not visible in this photo because taken against the light) and they’re more likely to be seen in open countryside. They soar overhead seeking out carrion and have a keen sense of smell.

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When we visited Brazos Bend State Park, a group of them were involved in seeking out something hidden on the ground, repeatedly wheeling around returning to the same spot. Nature being nature. I took this shot of one of them and its red head is just about visible. Its finger-like wing feathers make it easy to ID. Trying to get a shot of them on the wing is always a bit of challenge though.

Since I’ve been back in the locked-down UK, I’ve been doing a fair bit of on-line singing with my choir and think I must have been doing too many vocal warm ups because as I typed the title  “Black vulture, Turkey vulture” I started saying it as a tongue twister – like “Red leather, Yellow leather”…….oh dear!

A day of birds and beasts

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Wetlands and Spanish Moss on trees, Brazos Bend State Park

Following our truncated stay and hasty departure from our visit to family in Houston ( to get back before all planes stopped flying, no other reason!) I’ve finally got around to looking at the photos I took there. So distracting and disorientating is this period of lockdown (what day is it…?) I’d forgotten about our family day out at Brazos Bend State Park and what we’d seen there.

It’s one of our “must go to” places when in Houston, so before our departure we had a family day together and enjoyed a walk around these wetlands. They are alligator- inhabited, a bit of a birder’s paradise, and they always delight us. We’ve seen roseate spoonbills, ibis, blue herons, bitterns catching fish just feet away from us, red-winged blackbirds and alligators basking on the banks.

Trees are festooned with Spanish Moss, noisy American coots hoot and squawk, anhingas (cormorant-like) sit with wings spread in the sunshine and large dark blue butterflies make their presence felt as their wings brush by.

P1080543There’s always something new to see, and this time it was the large brown furry creature in the marshy area, which some of our party thought was a beaver, some thought was a coypu, and some some just didn’t know. It’s taken me a while to get round to the ID job, and I had to check it out and do a spot of research too. It’s a nutria, which I’d not heard of before, but they’re quite common, are similar to beavers and are related to coypu, which are found in Europe. It’s the size and tail which give the answer – large body, rat-like tail. Beaver tails are flattened.

One down, one to go. What was that unusual bird with an orange and black head I saw lurking in the undergrowth? I took a few shots very quickly and managed to get enough for an ID. But what was it? I’d seen something like it before but couldn’t remember where.

P1080546Lockdown days offer more time to browse photographs. This bird looked vaguely familiar, so I tried a long shot and looked at photos I’d taken in Costa Rica, and there it was – a Crested Caracara. I’d seen one there. They’re listed as being seen in Texas, and specifically at Brazos Bend. It was quite  thrill to see this large bird – and not only that, on the way to Brazos by I spotted a male Hen Harrier (called a Northern Harrier in the US) flying low over a field.

This was probably the most significant sighting of the day for me. Hen Harriers are persecuted and endangered in the UK, and although I’ve been fortunate enough to see both male and female of this species on the wing in the UK, they still give me goosebumps on my neck when I do.

Down by the bayou

This great blue heron was hanging around Buffalo Bayou in Houston as we walked along the path used by walkers and cyclists. First seen on a treetop heronry, where there were a few nests, then a little later in the water under a flyover, foot  poised.

The shots are not perfect, with background distraction in the one with water, and taken against a grey sky background with the treetop one, but I liked the visible tongue in the tree, and the foot raised from the rock in the water.

Jay

Jays are colourful crows, often shy and only glimpsed in our garden very briefly. They either briefly sit on the fence then fly away, or hop into the old apple tree and hang around in the branches for a while before heading back to the deeper cover of nearby woodland trees.

It was quite a suprise to look up from my desk and see one hopping about and searching for food at the front of the house, which faces the usually quiet cul-de-sac we live in. Taking its time, it scavenged along the dried and wintry vegetation, hopped into the branches of a very bare tree and was joined by a blue tit.

With my camera handy, and taking shots through the window, it was a welcome distraction as well as a welcome visitor.

December dawn: and a new decade

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Drawing back the curtains this morning, this is what I saw. The pink of the rising sun set against the the pale blue promise of clear skies to come, with the silhouettes of nearby trees standing dark and proud in contrast. A touch of soft grey mist hovered gently in the middle distance.

Another day was dawning, and soon it will be another decade.

That we are moving from the 20-teens to the 20-twenties in a few day’s time has only recently registered with me; I’d only got as far as musing on the past year, let alone the past decade.

With my professional astrology hat on, I could expand on the current on-going rubbing of the shoulders of the planets Saturn and Pluto. I’m not going to do that, apart from saying that Saturn, as I see it, symbolises dyed-in-the-wool traditions and Pluto is the force that seeks to break down and throw out what is no longer of use and move on. Read into and interpret that as you will, there’s enough evidence of this taking effect on a global scale.

Going back to the photo, what I’m struck by is how strong, upright and present that tree is in this scene. It’s a tree I see daily, and perhaps don’t take that much notice of, although I do enjoy getting out my binoculars to ID whichever bird happens to be perching at the top. Sometimes it’s a magpie, sometimes a blackbird singing its heart out, and sometimes it’s a woodpecker. All have to be viewed against the light, hence the need for the binoculars to get more detail.

Could the shape and silhouette of that tree be a metaphor for the year/decade ahead? It’s suggesting to me the need to stand strong and proud, to be unashamed, to be present, to have a straight back like its trunk, to reach high like its crown where the birds perch, and to have open, welcoming arms which reach upwards, like its branches.